Three alumnae and a social service agency are the 2021 recipients of the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice Alumni Awards.
This year's awards include the inaugural presentation of the Volunteer Leadership Award, which recognizes alumni who have been of exceptional service to the Crown Family School over a period of 10 years or more. This landmark award goes to Evelyn Green, AM '95, and Hazel Vespa, AM '68.
Receiving the Elizabeth Butler Award, which honors a recent graduate who has shown exceptional promise in the field of social work, is Imani Rupert-Gordon, AM '13. And the Distinctive Innovation in Social Services Award, which lauds social service agencies and programs that have demonstrated innovation in their approaches and practices, is awarded to Family Focus.
The Volunteer Leadership Award: Evelyn Green, AM '95
Evelyn Green was nominated for her dedication and commitment to the African American Alumni Committee (AAAC) and her leadership and stewardship of the African American Alumni Scholarship.
Green began volunteering for the AAAC in 2008. Her goals were to elevate equity by re-engaging Black alumni with the School, promoting professional development that includes culturally relevant and timely topics, and providing financial support to Black students.
In 2019, Green was part of a grassroots effort to establish an endowed scholarship that will provide support for Black students. Along with fellow committee members, she raised more than $90,000 for student support. Some students who received these funds would have otherwise been unable to provide housing for their families, fulfill their internship requirements, or attend the Crown Family School. In concert with the dean, the AAAC will distribute $30,000 in need-based support to six incoming students.
A first-generation high school graduate on her mother's side, Green worked hard to earn her bachelor's of social work. After College, she was accepted into the Crown Family School and into the first cohort of the Maternal and Child Health Program. Even with grants and student loans, however, she became homeless. She nevertheless remained determined to complete her degree. Both her first- and second-year field placement officers helped her with financial support at critical times. Having experienced student financial troubles firsthand herself, Green has embraced helping others as others have helped her.
The Volunteer Leadership Award: Hazel Vespa, AM '68
Hazel Vespa, a retired senior social worker in the Division of Genetics, Birth Defects and Metabolism at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, has long advocated for those suffering from PKU (phenylketonuria), an inherited disease affecting the brain.
Before the 1960s, children with PKU and many other chronic diseases never lived to adulthood. As that began to change, Vespa was among the interdisciplinary group of professionals who developed the first programs that helped families to successfully navigate the children's transition from pediatric to adult medical care.
Lurie's social work department shares deep, intertwining roots with the Crown Family School. Founded in 1911 at what was then known as Children's Memorial Hospital, the department soon began training students from the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, a forerunner of the Crown Family School.
Vespa succeeded Elizabeth Butler, namesake of the Crown Family School's young alumni award, as Children's student trainer. Vespa went on to coordinate the Crown Family School's fieldwork program for about 25 years.
After two years of service in the Peace Corps, Vespa enrolled at the Crown Family School and graduated in 1968. She began volunteering for the School in the 1970s and served on the alumni board in various capacities, including as president from 1974 to 1976.
The Elizabeth Butler Award: Imani Rupert-Gordon, AM '13
Imani Rupert-Gordon became executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in March 2020. There, she has become a nationally recognized leader among leaders, someone who serves the lesbian rights movement with vision and creativity. She was nominated for her ongoing efforts to advocate for inclusion, social justice, and marginalized populations.
From 2016 to 2020, Rupert-Gordon served as executive director for Affinity Community Services, a social justice organization that works with the LGBTQ+ community with a particular focus on Black women. At Affinity, she created programming geared toward addressing disparities that women face. Rupert-Morgan spearheaded Affinity's annual participation in Equal Pay Day. That included creating and disseminating an annual fact sheet on the impact of the wage gap that highlights the wage inequality for women, transgender and gender non-conformists, and people of color or who have disabilities.
In 2018, Rupert-Gordon created the Blackprint: A Plan for Building the Leadership Capacity of Black LGBTQ+ Women Leaders. She also is the former director of the Broadway Youth Center (BYC), part of Howard Brown Health in Chicago, which serves LGBTQ+ youth who experience housing instability. Rupert-Gordon oversaw expansion of BYC services, improved the center's community relationships, and helped establish a more sustainable budget through increased donations.
Rupert-Gordon received her BA in sociology from the University of California Santa Cruz and has held multiple positions there. She is also active in several community service efforts including the Illinois State Treasurer's LGBT Advisory Council.
Distinctive Innovation in Social Services Award: Family Focus
Family Focus was nominated for its responsiveness to client needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, its actions included securing and distributing $900,000 in direct emergency support providing food, clothing, and supplies from grants awarded to address immediate needs. This was part of the agency's work to strengthen families in Chicago and northeast Illinois. The agency helps families achieve upward economic mobility through high-quality innovative programs and services grounded in anti-racism and social justice.
Family Focus merged with the Chicago Child Care Society on Jan. 1, 2021. CCCS began as an orphanage on Wells Street in 1849 to care for children who were left homeless after their parents fell to the cholera epidemic of that year. CCCS has continued to serve Chicagoland through every war and crisis since then.
Dara Munson, who joined CCCS in 2018 as chief executive officer and who accepted the award on behalf of Family Focus, was the force behind merging the two organizations. Her accomplishments since coming to Chicago include increasing the diversity of the Family Focus board and staff. Now, more than 90 percent of the staff are people of color who represent the communities that the agency serves.
Supporting the nomination of Family Focus for the award was Dolores Norton, the Samuel Deutsch Professor Emerita, who helped develop the agency and the Crown Family School's Family Support Program of Study that emerged from it.
Family Focus was founded in Evanston in 1976 by early childhood and family service pioneers Irving Harris and Bernard and Bernice Weissbourd. The agency now also operates in Cook, DuPage, and Lake Counties. Today, Family Focus programs span early childhood development, family advocacy, fatherhood, home visiting, health and nutrition, immigration and citizen support, school and center-based youth programs, and trauma support for young children and families.
Established in 1929, the Crown Family School Alumni Association strengthens and maintains links between the Crown Family School and its more than 9,000 graduates. Each year, the School and the Alumni Association recognize distinguished alumni during Alumni Weekend. This year's award ceremony was held on June 5, 2021.
The Crown Family School is proud of the many thousands of alumni who are working at all levels to improve the quality of life of vulnerable individuals, families, and communities and who have dedicated their lives working toward a more just and humane society.